Tam O'Shanter, by Flickr user jk_scotland under a Creative Commons license
What’s your favourite Robert Burns poem? This question was put to over 1000 Scots in a recent YouGov poll – and they answered ‘Tam O’Shanter’. Taking 23 per cent of the vote, Burns’s 1790 masterpiece triumphed over ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That’ (17 per cent) and ‘My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose’ (14 per cent). So do Scots prefer ghosts and ghouls to egalitarianism and romance?
Burns wrote ‘Tam O’Shanter’ in 1790. ‘A great carnival of verse’, as Robert Crawford describes the poem, ‘Tam O’Shanter’ has a hero who suffers more than marital discord or a hangover when he returns home late from the pub. Passing a ruined kirk, he witnesses a black mass and, excited by a witch in a short dress, cries out – only to be chased home by the hordes of hell. The poem ends with Tam barely escaping; his poor horse loses her tail in the pursuit, a symbolic and comically obvious castration. ‘Remember Tam O’Shanter’s mare’ the poem concludes mock solemnly. In 1790, Burns himself was having an affair with Ann Park and had come through a bout of serious illness; unsurprisingly, then, sex and death were on the poet’s mind as he wrote. Although the tone of the poem is largely comic, it also contains lines that hint at the despair behind the hedonism:
But pleasures are like poppies spread—
You seize the flow’r, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river—
A moment white—then melts forever.
With its language as colourful as the twists of its plot, ‘Tam O’Shanter’ was often used in Scottish primary schools to introduce children to Burns. Perhaps an element of nostalgia explains the poem’s strong showing in the poll. But then again, from the Border ballads to Muriel Spark, Scots have demonstrated an abiding interest in the macabre and spooky. Tam is an icon of the Scottish gothic, alongside James Hogg’s Gil-Martin and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Mr Hyde.
It would be interesting to know if readers outside Scotland backed Burns’s countrymen in naming ‘Tam O’Shanter’ his finest moment. One suspects the political Burns or Burns the lover is what chiefly draws international attention.
Although one should also remember that, according to the YouGov poll, strictly speaking ‘Don’t know’ is Scotland’s favourite Burns’s poem. Kindly voices have attributed this to Scottish readers being incapable of choosing but a single poem from the many great ones Burns completed. But those who took part were asked to choose from a list of options. Burns, like his spooks, might be turning in his grave.